Editor’s note: This is the seventh of an 11-part series on Buddhism.
Philosophical Hinduism was based on the Upanishads, divinely revealed philosophical writings (shruti), which only men of the upper three classes were permitted to read. Later writings, however, based on human wisdom (smriti), became available to all persons. Most important among them was the Bhagavad-Gita, which held that the highest religion was based on bhakti yoga (faith in and devotion to a personal God). Bhakti developed a trinitarian structure consisting of Vishnu (God in heaven), his multiple incarnations (avatars) on earth, and his spirit (antaryamin) in the heart of his believers.
Pure Land Buddhism arose in India under the influence of Bhakti Yoga. Its scriptures included the Pure Land Sutra and the Lotus Sutra. Its trinity consisted of Amitabha Buddha (in heaven), Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (who descends to earth), and Mahastamaprapta (Avalokitesvara's power). In Japan, the first two figures became Amida Buddha and Kannon Bodhisattva, while Mahasthamaprapta disappeared. Like Bhakti Hinduism, Pure Land Buddhism depended upon faith and was open to both men and women of every class, including the outcastes (outside the traditional four classes). Not surprisingly, both Bhakti Hinduism and Pure Land Buddhism, because they were compatible with the lives of laypeople, became the most popular subgroups within their respective religions.
Earlier forms of Buddhism had agreed that reaching nirvana required multiple lifetimes, indeed a very great many lifetimes. Later Buddhisms such as Zen, Pure Land, and Vajrayana agreed that a single lifetime could be sufficient. Pure Land, however, is critical of Zen's reliance on self-help (jiriki). Self-help implies the existence of an individual self and the sufficiency of that self alone to reach the ultimate destination. Rather than eliminating ego, self-help (jiriki) seems to strengthen ego. By contrast, Pure Land encourages other-help (tariki). Having to acknowledge that one cannot reach nirvana alone undermines egoism. Moreover, although Zen seeks prajna (saving insight) and nirvana in one lifetime, it remains connected to monasticism and to meditation, both of which pose problems for the laity.
The help of other-help comes from various bodhisattvas, including Avalokitesvara, but also from various Buddhas, especially from Amitabha or Amida Buddha, who made a vow that if anyone called on him in faith using a particular verbal formula (in Japan, the nembutsu), he would deliver that person at death directly to the highest of many thousands of buddha fields, namely, Sukhavati (the Happy Land of the West). Such heavens are filled with wondrous and pleasurable sights, sounds, tastes and smells, including trees filled with jewels. In Sukhavati, where one’s wishes come true, the conditions for the practice of religion are so perfect that one who reaches it is guaranteed to reach nirvana without the necessity of being reborn anymore. Heaven, then, is not the ultimate destination (nirvana is), and reliance on faith is ultimately not a substitute for practice. Other Mahayana schools, however, regard the heavens as unreal, as mere projections of the mind, or as skillful (but untrue) devices to encourage faith and practice.
Faith and practice are sometimes reconciled by the parable of the ocean. A man boards a ship, which sails out into the ocean. A terrible storm sinks the ship, casting the man into the sea. Thrashing about ineffectually in the water, he loses strength and gives up, sinking below the surface. Buoyancy, however, won't let him drown immediately. Suddenly, he understands (is given faith and insight) that the ocean will support him. It is still necessary for him to swim (practice) to the nearest island, but he does so with the confidence that the ocean is on his side and that he will make it.
Pure Land itself split into two groups. Pure Land (Jodo Shu), founded by Honen (1133-1212 C.E.), thinks dualistically, holding that salvation comes in the future in the Pure Land, which is real and separate from this earthly existence. True Pure Land (Jodo Shinshu), was founded by Shinran (1173-1263 C.E.), who is often compared to St. Paul. Its focus is on the present rather than the future. It thinks nondualistically, affirming that there is no Pure Land apart from this world and that salvation is possible in this world and in this life. This world is seen as impure by those whose minds and hearts are impure but as pure by the pure of heart and mind. Moreover, Amitabha or Amida is viewed (metaphysically) as a personification of the Buddha essence that is in everything or, psychologically, as a personification of the unity of wisdom and compassion. Finally, Pure Land priests are celibate; True Pure Land priests are married.
Besides being the most popular subgroups with their respective religions, Pure Land Buddhism and Bhakti Hinduism are the closest ones to Christianity. Pure Land Buddhists were the first Buddhists to immigrate in large numbers to America.
Milton Scarborough is emeritus professor of philosophy and religion at Centre College.